Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Between Prissiness and Profanity

I’m never sure how sorry we should feel for Esau.

I’m not troubled by the way he lost his birthright by trading it to his brother for a bowl of lentils. That one’s all on him. Jacob was a savvy deal-maker to be sure, but there was nothing sneaky about that particular arrangement. The problem was Esau’s: he failed to value something very valuable indeed. He despised his birthright. That’s just not very bright, and certainly not very spiritual.

The stolen blessing was another story. That involved some serious connivance, misdirection and outright lying. Esau had every right to be furious.

The problem was that he was furious about the wrong thing.

Esau was mad because he had lost. In the sibling rivalry sweepstakes, Jacob had left him in the dust. He was also angry because there was very probably a significant wealth component involved in losing the birthright. Deuteronomy spells out the right of the firstborn son to a double portion of the family inheritance. (This wasn’t all upside; a great number of responsibilities came with it.) That rule was likely not a brand new one, but rather a restatement of years of Hebrew tradition, and would almost surely have been in force in this situation.

Missing the Point

However, at no point does Esau express the slightest regret for the loss of the spiritual aspect of his inheritance. Though he can hardly have been unaware of the promises God had made to his grandfather Abraham, and the fact that his own father, as inheritor of these blessings, was in a unique position among all the peoples of the earth, nothing about this seems to have touched him in any way. The Genesis narrative does not hint at an iota of spiritual perception in Esau.

Take, for example, his reaction to the news that his brother was being sent away to take a wife from among their extended family in Paddan-aram rather than from among the local Canaanites. Esau had already taken two Canaanite wives, and seemed oblivious to the fact that his mother detested them. Rather than saying to himself “Lesson learned,” becoming more sensitized to his parents’ wishes in the future, and maybe even contemplating some of the reasons they might have been offended by his marrying Canaanites in the first place, Esau promptly went off and married a third woman, this one an Ishmaelite cousin.

Hey, he got the cousin part right at least. But this is the sort of man Esau was. Spiritually insensate. Dull of heart and conscience. Like Cain, he reliably missed the point at every turn. Ishmael was half-Egyptian. Marrying one of his daughters was only marginally better than marrying a Canaanite. The son of the slave woman was not destined to be an heir with Isaac, a fact Sarah insisted upon and God later affirmed. Reintroducing Ishmael’s seed into the Abrahamic line was a non-starter, even if he was as close a relative as most of Isaac and Rebekah’s Aramean kindred.

Incidentally, I should probably point out that in being displeased by Esau’s choice of partners, Isaac and Rebekah were not merely displaying some sort of unreasoning racial prejudice. There were several solid reasons marrying Canaanites was a terrible idea.

Those Nasty, Bigoted Patriarchs

One was that God’s project of calling out of the world a people for himself was only in its second generation. At such an early stage, pulling other genes into the mix would have effectively nullified anything distinctive about what was to become the nation of Israel. A certain amount of intermarriage with the nations would be tolerated at much later stages when its potentially negative spiritual impact was offset by the conversion of the Gentile mothers (Rahab, Ruth) to an established, documented way of relating to God. But this was way too early in Israel’s history for that sort of thing. Besides, Esau’s wives were not about to convert to anything.

Interestingly, the racial purity issue is still of concern to religious leaders in Israel almost four millennia later.

Another reason was character. The writer of Genesis tells us Esau’s wives Judith and Basemath “made life bitter” for Isaac and Rebekah. They were unpleasant people. Rebekah told her husband, “I loathe my life because of these Hittite women.” We do not get a lot of detail about the interpersonal relationships in Isaac’s household, but there is a level of intensity to Rebekah’s complaint that suggests the grievances upon which it was based were not trivial.

These were not the ordinary mother-in-law/wife petty grudges that develop in modern families; rather, there was something about living at close quarters with Canaanites, their habits and religious beliefs that was deeply offensive to Isaac and Rebekah. These are people who did not scruple at burning their own babies alive, remember?

It is an established principle of scripture that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, bad company inevitably ruins good morals, not the other way around. If intermarriage of this sort were allowed, the next generation of Abraham’s seed would take on the character of their mothers. That character had been observed up close and found seriously wanting.

But the most important concern here is that the Canaanites were under the judgment of God. This had already been revealed to Abraham’s family. God had told Abraham that his descendants would sojourn and be enslaved in another country for 400 years. One of the reasons for this was that “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” That addressed the obvious question raised in one of God’s earlier conversations with Abraham: “Lord, if I am going to inherit this land, what are you going to do with all the Canaanites?” The answer was that they were going to be destroyed because of their sins … but not yet. God graciously allowed them significant time to repent. However, if the seed of Abraham were to mingle indiscriminately with the Canaanites, how could God effectively judge them, and how could he avoid judging his own people?

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Isaac and Rebekah had thought through all of these issues and that their bias against Esau’s wives was exclusively — or even primarily — rational. In fact, Rebekah’s expressed revulsion may have been quite intuitive. The point is, both parents were on the right track, whether they understood why or not. Their guts were telling them something meaningful about Canaanite intermarriage that our modern sensibilities do not.

Esau missed all this somehow.

Lentils and Legacies

Hebrews tells us Esau’s problem was that he was a “profane person”. Some translators use the word “unholy”, but that needs to be explained a bit. “Holy” means “set apart”. A profane person is not necessarily actively wicked so much as he is occupied with common things. He is irreligious; not evil in intention, necessarily, but with no regard for the importance of God and his will. The original Greek word literally means “accessible”, in contrast to the areas of the temple that were off limits to most of the population. Paul uses the word four times to Timothy, in order to warn him against things like “irreverent, silly myths”, babbling and course misrepresentations of the teaching of the word of God. Why? Because they reduce the word of the almighty God to mere human opinion, speculation and triviality. And they are infectious. They have the potential to “spread like gangrene”, just like the character and practices of Judith and Basemath.

Esau was indiscriminate. For him, anything would do. No wonder he married Canaanites and Ishmaelites. He probably would have been fine with Sodomites too, if there had been any left. Today, some would call Esau’s inability to make relevant distinctions a fine and endearing quality. Paul calls it irreverent, unholy or profane.

Esau’s world is dangerous spiritual territory. Across the way are the legalists and Pharisees, turning up their noses at Gentiles, publicans and sinners with whom the Lord Jesus himself was willing to eat. No attentive follower of Christ wants to live on their side of the road. Sniffing at the less-savory unsaved in holier-than-thou disdain is not an attitude that will work effectively for the Christian, not just because it is proud and blind, but because it does not accurately mirror the thinking of our Savior toward the lost.

Esau’s mindset is no use to use to us either, though it is unrelentingly promoted by the spirit of the age. It’s certainly broader, but it admits anyone and everything willy-nilly. It cannot tell the difference between People of the Promise and People Under Judgment; between lentils and legacies, between extending mercy and wallowing in the mud.

The Christian walks down a narrow path between prissiness and profanity, loving the lost but not loving lostness, eating with sinners but not choosing to raise families with them, showing mercy and fear while hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

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